University of Zurich
Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies
How does nature innovate, how does it create new evolutionary adaptations? Darwin taught us how innovations can spread, but his theory is silent about the origins of new and beneficial traits. To identify innovation principles deeper than the well-worn notion that random DNA mutations are needed, we study three classes of genetic change that bring forth most or all evolutionary innovations. These are changes in metabolism, in regulatory circuits, and in macromolecules like protein and RNA. By analyzing and comparing how new traits originate in these systems, we can identify the deep principles behind life's ability to innovate, its innovability.
One facet of this research program regards the relationship between genotype and phenotype. Between the lower, genetic level of biological organization and the higher level of organisms, a huge gap in our knowledge exists. We do not know how genotypic change translates into phenotypic change. One of our goals is to help fill this gap. To do so, we study the evolution of biological networks, which form a bridge between genotype and phenotype. How do these networks form their phenotypes? How did they evolve? How do their phenotypes change in different environments and after mutations? How robust are these networks to genetic change? How does their robustness affect the ability to create new phenotypes?
Another research theme revolves around genome evolution. Do gene duplications merely cause a passive expansion of genome size, are they an engine of innovation, or merely a source of robustness against mutations? Are transposable elements really only parasites inside cells, the ultimate selfish genes, or do they provide benefits to their hosts? How does natural selection shape genes in the human genome and in other genomes?
Our work uses comparative analysis of genomic data, laboratory evolution experiments and mathematical modeling. We also develop a variety of bioinformatics tools to help us take advantage of a torrent of data in genomics and structural biology.
We are members of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics.